Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Separation Anxiety: Day 13 of Slinky with Misha May Foundation

Slinky was with Gina this morning and here is her report:

“I thought you would be happy to hear that I'm in my kitchen (out of sight) and Slinky has been sleeping in the living room in her crate for the past 45 minutes :) Initially, she wasn't paying any attention to the crate, so I dropped a few treats in there. She eventually walked into the crate and pulled them out to eat them...came into the kitchen to make sure I was still here...rounded back into the living room and into the crate she went!”

Again, Gina demonstrates her understanding of what needs to happen to help Slinky develop a positive relationship with crating. She is even choosing the crate when mom isn’t in sight. This training is about continuing to plant the seeds and allowing enough time for them to grow. We can’t hurry the development of a positive association any more quickly than the dog can accept it. If we push, it can become a negative pretty fast! I always say that you can‘t go too slow when it comes to training.

The question of dog parks for Slinky has come up. I have a lot to say about dog parks but will limit my remarks to addressing a few specific concerns. Dog parks can be a wonderful experience if everyone there is doing their part and acting responsibly. Too often, common sense guidelines are ignored and instead of further socialization, negative associations with other dogs are formed.

Dog parks are not places to socialize dogs. They are places where already socialized dogs go to have fun. A simple definition of socialization is when a dog is having enjoyable experiences which create positive associations with his world. This results in a more relaxed sociable creature. Placing a dog in a situation for which he isn’t ready or suited, decreases the likelihood of him developing more confidence and sociability.

Most dogs do best one on one. Setting up play dates with one nice dog at a time and allowing the dogs to practice their meeting and greeting skills along with play manners is the optimum route. Each situation can be a building block toward a dog savvy dog. You can’t expect your dog to learn what he knows amidst the chaos of a dog park or sometimes even a dog daycare.

Good dog daycares screen each dog for any problem behaviors. This is for a very good reason. Some dogs are refused admittance because they may have an unpleasant or stressful experience themselves or cause such for other dogs. Every dog is not suited to play in a group setting, especially when it involves so many unfamiliar dogs. Well run daycares understand this and either refuse admittance to dogs who need more individual training, or provide separate appropriate areas accompanied by supportive behavior modification.

Unfortunately in most dog parks no one is supervising play or screening entrants. There are bullies and aggressive dogs as well as fragile and sensitive dogs. There are dogs who play rough and those who would rather not be roughed up. There are dogs of all sizes and strengths, which can lead to challenging situations.

Often there are no guidelines regulating human behavior either. People gather and chat instead of supervising. Parents bring children and food which is a recipe for disaster. People bring dogs who are not appropriate candidates.

Good dog parks have rules posted and participants adhere to them themselves and require others to do so as well. The best dog parks have citizen committees, self-appointed or otherwise, who oversee play. They have learned about dog body language and canine behavior. They know something about appropriate play and interactions. They are committed to making their park fun and safe and educational. And they are not shy about standing up for the rules if someone breaks them. They know that the success of the park depends on each of them advocating for the highest standards possible.

One side effect of going to the park is that a dog can learn bad habits either from other dogs or from the humans. For example, people have different expectations for their dogs. Some people allow their dogs to jump up especially if they are on the small side. If you don’t want this behavior encouraged in your dog you can request that others ignore it and not reward it. But how do you handle the situation when someone replies "Oh, I don't mind! I have a much bigger dog and he jumps, too!"

Clearly this person does not understand canine behavior science. Jumping up is so difficult to modify because it is a natural behavior for dogs to want to smell our mouths and be near our faces. We have to be 100% consistent in not giving it any attention. Yes, it might be difficult, but is it fair to a dog who is going to be confused or even punished for their behavior? If just one person rewards your dog for jumping up, you’re now starting over because what your dog has learned is that no one will reward him for 10 times but on the 11th someone will. And he will wait and try, and wait and try, as long as there is a chance. Not fair!

One of the bad habits that dogs learn from each other is rough play that ignores calming signals from some of the participating dogs. When there is too much stimulation from running and chasing and playing, manners can be forgotten. Just like children on a playground or partiers in a bar, feelings get hurt, relationships damaged or even fights can break out. Some dogs shake this off as if it were nothing but more sensitive dogs can be scarred for life from what they perceived as an attack.

And then there are real attacks. This is not only a tragedy for the dog involved but for the future dogs that he might now fear and proactively attack. I see so much dog reactivity among my behavior cases because dogs are worried about what the other dog will do. In the majority of cases, the owner and I inevitably uncover a time in that dog’s life when he was terrified of another dog. He may have actually been physically injured or just deeply threatened. It’s so important that dogs like each other and are set up for successful fun experiences together.

No matter where you are taking your dog, leash walking, daycare or park, be prepared. Find out who goes there and how the dogs get along. Know what behaviors are permitted and be certain that you are comfortable with them. Protect your dog from bullies just as you would your child. If you have a bully, get help because he is most likely insecure. He needs to know that you are in charge and will keep things safe for him. He doesn’t need to make up the rules – you already have. A great book regarding this philosophy is Leader of the Pack by Patricia McConnell.

And if you are thinking I mean leadership like dominance, here is a link to a great article by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior which dispels this out of date erroneous way of thinking. The philosophy which we utilize at Misha May Foundation and recommend is Learning Theory, which is discussed favorably in the same article.

Gina had Slinky from 11 until 3:30 today. We were prepared for a smooth transition knowing that if I took Slinky and drove away, she would be distracted and not miss Gina as much. I decided that going for a coffee would be great idea. And off I went with Slinky who did indeed become quickly transfixed upon the car windows.

Slinky and my 3 dogs were all loose in the living room area and were very relaxed and playful with each other. Our gradual introduction process has worked very well and Slinky seems well integrated into the group. She is always excited and pleased to greet them upon her arrivals.

I enhanced our separation training today by moving the car from the garage to the drive and then to the front of the house and back again. She is excited to see me each time I return but not distressed. I have worked up to this by helping her relax around cues of leaving: keys, coat, shoes, purse. I picked them up out of the typical order and placed them in unfamiliar places. They soon had no meaning for her instead of causing her to panic.

And the separations have grown from infinitesimal to short. I am so proud of Slinky and her progress. I’m thrilled that any of my movements around the house or in the yard or out the front door don’t cause her any alarm. And now we are adding the garage, car and driving sounds.

I know that having my relaxed dogs around help her too.

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